art & commerce: Fresh Milk

Who’s to blame for creative impotence? The beloved client
Working with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, he has helped mold and
shape the long-running “Got milk?” campaign.
When I forewarned Jeff Goodby, creative director of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, that I (the “Got milk?” client) was writing this piece, he rolled his eyes and asked, in that oh-so-dry way of his, whether this wasn’t a better subject for family counseling. The truth is, there’s an enormous amount of creative impotence in the advertising world.
Spend a few hours cruising the streets looking at outdoor boards. The majority–and not the simple majority–are a waste of paper, space and money. One cannot, even at the sluggish pace of a L.A. rush hour, figure out who the advertiser is. This isn’t an issue of subtlety. It’s because 20 or 30 words, usually in three or four typefaces, have been crammed onto a 30-sheet board.
But the most wasteful examples of creative impotence aren’t ads; they’re strategies (or nonstrategies). They’re entire campaigns, sometimes highly acclaimed work, that simply do not have a relevant, surprising, potent idea underpinning the creative.
So who’s to blame for “creative that can’t get it up?” My vote goes to the beloved client. These are the folks who mandate that every ad must use the brand name at least three times. The same folks who fire agencies when their business is soft and charge new agencies with repositioning and, in some cases, resurrecting their products (witness United Airlines). The same folks who get mediocrity because their agencies can’t get anything truly provocative approved.
It strikes me that rarely does a major agency not have the creative resources to produce potent advertising. Rather, it doesn’t work with clients who understand, embrace and worship the creative development process.
Avoiding creative impotence, especially with mature brands and long-term client/agency relationships, isn’t easy. And I don’t believe there’s a five-step to get there. The best I can do is provide a glimpse into how it works on the “Got milk?” business.
Perhaps most importantly, Jeff Goodby and his inmates can literally present anything they want to me. Sure, I’m a bit more receptive when the ideas (always in the form of scripts or scraps) are founded on milk deprivation. But over the past seven years, we’ve talked about hundreds of ideas, many of which weren’t in the classic “food/no milk” mold. Some, like the “Y2Kud” spot, get produced because they are timely, funny ideas that do something (although I’m not always sure what) for milk.
Next, the agency is never threatened. That isn’t to say I don’t lose it on occasion because something is late or overbudget. It just means that people can’t consistently deliver greatness while looking over their shoulder.
Lastly, the ultimate responsibility for the creative product and business results lie in my lap. If my board hates a spot, or Adweek pans a commercial, or if milk sales take a nose-dive, the fingers are pointed at me. Not because I enjoy catching flak, but because Goodby, Silverstein & Partners is a treasured resource, not a convenient excuse.